Mediterranean Garden Society

Making a Garden in Andalusia: Part 1

by Sibylle Mattern
photos by Sibylle Mattern

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 115, January 2024

The photo at the top of this page shows part of the Blue Patio (Photo Sibylle Mattern)

Sibylle Mattern and her husband retired to the Costa del Sol where they had spent their honeymoon 35 years previously. She writes:

My wish was to have a place where I could grow outdoors all year round all the tender plants that I had to keep indoors in the wet and nasty cold German winters. I wanted a small kitchen garden where I could go out to pick salads spontaneously, shaded patios with water features surrounded by a jungle of large leaves wi

Blue Patio in evening light, July 2022

It took no more than four months to sign the contract for an old house on its tiny own hill of one and a half acres in a well-maintained urbanization in the hills to the west of Marbella, on the southern side of the Serrania de Ronda mountains. It ticked all the boxes. What’s more, when we visited the house for the first time and looked down from the kitchen window into the neighbouring valley, a large booted eagle came gliding past at eye-level down from the mountains – and the decision was made.

The terrain is shaped like a Spanish breakfast roll with drawn-out ends, about 220 m long but only about 45 m wide at its widest part in the middle where the house is situated. A fence surrounds it, unfortunately necessary because of a very large population of gourmet deer in the neighbourhood which are ingenious in finding any weak points and have been visiting rather too often. Behind the fence to the west and north is an abandoned golf course which has long been reclaimed by nature with its natural vegetation of macchia: Mediterranean fan palms or palmitos (Chamaerops humilis), various oaks, especially the beautiful cork oak (Quercus suber), lentisks (Pistacia lentiscus), wild olives, Phlomis and the occasional Nerium oleander. The soil is poor, mostly limestone with very little humus. The elevation is between 225 m and 240 m above sea level. The site is very windy. We are seven kilometres from the Mediterranean coast and the atmospheric humidity is usually high, around 60%. Annual rainfall is around 600 mm, about the same as in Frankfurt, Germany, but very variable and concentrated in the winter months between November and May. The period from June to October is often without any rain.

The existing garden behind the house consisted of a large, very green lawn of Grama catalana (Stenotaphrum secundatum), so springy and built up that it felt like walking on a trampoline, beds of white and red floribunda-type roses, pittosporums pruned into balls, lots of lentisks and metrosideros pruned into balls or squares, and oleander pruned as hedges. The eastern slope had a terraced gravel area with several large Washingtonia palms and palmitos, while further down the slope there was a small forested area with pines. The southern half of the plot was not cultivated and was full of spiny impenetrable shrubs. The driveway held a few old olive trees with their crowns pruned into balls, some “acebuche”, which is a wild olive with beautiful slender multi-branched silver trunks, also pruned into balls, all underplanted with rosemary, teucrium, phlomis and other easy shrubs from the local nurseries. Erigeron karvinskianus was coming up everywhere, which I liked very much. Everything was copiously watered and the resident gardener told us “Nothing else grows here”.

Como Jungle area, November 2022
In contrast to this well-kept, formally cut, rather orderly classical green garden, I had a very different vision: a garden full of plants growing healthily and naturally, green and lush, with no apparent design, no straight lines, and the human influence hardly visible: a self-reliant place. I wanted an effect of nature on its own, plants enjoying their place in the garden, living their own lives in the company of their neighbours, flowering, seeding and propagating, quite unconcerned with their human masters.  I envisaged a haven for birds and insects and other small animals. Humans would be allowed in as visitors and admirers – I and the gardeners would help all our plants to achieve their potential. In short, a Garden of Eden.

First steps

Paul Neaum, who had worked for us in Germany for many years as garden designer and gardener, had relocated professionally to that area behind Marbella a few years earlier. At the very beginning Paul had asked us a surprising question: what motto should the garden and house have? We thought about this for a few days, not making much sense out of it, and decided on “Joyfulness”. The outside of the house is terracotta red with blue shutters, all the bedrooms have received new colours in various shades of blue and green, and the swimming pool was tiled with dark green Moroccan tiles. This classification has helped a lot, not only with the garden but also with indoors. When selecting furniture or a piece of art for a wall, we ask ourselves: is it joyful?

Gravetye Manor (photo Gravetye)

Paul also asked which was my favourite famous garden. He probably wanted to find out what style I had in mind. The garden I most admired was Gravetye Manor in Sussex, a historic garden created by William Robinson in the 1880s which has been maintained and restored over the years. Of course the choice of plants would be different in a mediterranean climate but the effect of a wild natural garden I found most pleasing and it could, I thought, be created. It is always important to have goals…

In our mind we split the garden into different zones. Due to the topography with four slopes in all directions and a variety of terraces we had many different microclimates to work with and the possibility of accommodating plants with very different needs. For ease of watering we planned to grow plants with similar needs grouped together and we also made plans for rough colour schemes. The latter I don’t apply religiously as my greedy plant-collecting nature nearly always wins over and the wish to grow certain plants usually pushes aside any aesthetic considerations. I had a few rules: I did not want separate garden rooms but rather a natural flow between the different distinct areas, a colour scheme to each area and a gradual change to a different topic in the next scene with no repetition of plants in the different scenes. I wanted as many different plants as possible that I did not know. Paul created 3D models of the garden and placed trees and large shrubs in the model. The garden was coming to life on paper.

Constructing the jungle area Como, July 2020

So when the renovation of the house was finished with a new pool and several rooms added, the existing garden nearly completely destroyed, and a few retaining walls from the local yellow limestone added in order to make flat surfaces for planting according to the 3D sketches, we asked the workers to lay paths with surfaces in the local fashion of a yellow sand called “Albero” mixed with water and a little cement to cope with the slopes.

So how and where to start planting? 

In the beginning we went to as many local nurseries as possible to see what they had and what I would like and Paul suggested many large backbone plants that I did not know, such as a beautiful large Pandanus utilis that I remembered from a golf course on Mauritius, a Parkinsonia aculeata, a Butia yatay, a Grevillea robusta, a Tabebuia rosea and a× Chitalpa tashkentensis, a cross between Catalpa bignonioides and Chilopsis linearis. All ended up in our garden. I wanted more palm trees. Palms give a distinctly holiday feel and the choice is huge although I didn’t know anything about palms except for the arecas grown in living rooms. So we chose a group of Phoenix reclinata, to be placed next to the pool area, a tall Roystonea regia for the front of the house, a Livistona chinensis for the back of the house,another Washingtonia robusta for behind the pool and several more. 

Planting a group of Phoenix reclinata, July 2020

During the last months of the renovation the pandemic had been raging in Spain and the country was closed to visitors. Paul had stayed on and prepared areas for planting and ordered the large dominating plants that we had selected. So at the end of June 2019, when Spain opened her borders and the builders had finished the house, I was on one of the first flights to take over the house and see the palm trees arriving and being hoisted into the selected locations mostly with cranes from the road, lifted high over the small pine forest as the big lorries could not enter the driveway. Palm trees come in huge heavy pots.  At first we were worried to be planting these large plants in the middle of the summer but apparently palm trees prefer to be relocated during their growth phase rather than sitting in cold wet ground and we haven’t lost any.

The second part of this article will appear in TMG 116.

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